Over the last couple of days, an interesting debate has emerged about whether employers should use social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace to "screen" potential employees.

One corner, supported by the Delaware Employment Law Blog, argues that there are some real and tangible benefits to using the sites, as long as they are used within reason:

I am in favor of this practice–so long as it is performed with certain safeguards…. Just as with criminal backgrounds, employers should not make a per se decision without first giving the candidate an opportunity to explain the results of the report and any circumstances surrounding the arrest and/or conviction. The same interactive discussion should occur if an employer finds something on the candidate’s social-networking site that gives them concerns.

The other corner, supported by EmployeeIQ Blog, isn’t persuaded.  He argues that just because employers are using those sites more often doesn’t mean it is the correct approach.  He argues that background screening companies shouldn’t even offer the service because it will expose their clients (in many cases, employers) to risk

Consumer Reporting Agency’s that are concerned about best practices don’t offer their services to trample on consumers’ rights or to expose their clients to unnecessary risk. There is no way to verify the accuracy of the information that is posted on these sites, nor is there a way to confirm that the applicant actually posted such information.

So who’s right? Well, the answer is they both are.  While the Fair Credit Reporting Act may not apply in many cases to employer’s review of socicourtesy morgue file "monitor"al networking sites, use of those sites may raise issues of discrimination. For example, suppose that an employer reviews a candidate’s site and sees that the applicant is African-American — a fact that is obviously not apparent on a job resume.  If that employer makes a decision not to hire the applicant, they open themselves up to a claim of discrimination.  And frankly, an employer’s hiring decisions should come down to who is best qualified for the job; knowing that someone’s favorite show is Heroes may be interesting, but irrelevant. 

However, concerns about widespread misuse of the information appear to be — at least so far —  overblown.  The risk of a lawsuit also appears negligible. There isn’t an noticeable upswing on rejected applicants suing. In fact, such suits are unlikely because the applicant many times doesn’t even know their social networking sites are being looked at. In the absence of information, the applicants simply move on to another potential employer.

And as for the "accuracy" of the sites, I would speculate that that too is a bit exaggerated. Yes, some college grads put some boasts on their site, but Facebook has moved so quickly into the mainstream that many people are using it as a communication tool, far removed from their college years. In fact, a new study shows that Facebook’s largest growing audience is anyone BUT college students.  And as more people use the privacy settings, peeking at someone else’s information isn’t going to be that easy anymore.

Overall, employers should tread very carefully in using social networking sites as a screening device.  There are very little substantive advantages to using such sites and there are several landmines employers need to avoid. While they may satisfy an employer’s curiosity, the time-worn principles of checking references, conducting interviews and, if necessary, background screening, should typically satisfy most employer’s need to hire the best candidate.